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THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED Based on a true story, this handsome drama directed by actor Bill Paxton (his second stint behind the camera, following the muddled thriller Frailty) centers on the 1913 US Open and how a 20-year-old American lad named Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf) finds himself pitted against two British pros -- one being six-time British Open winner Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane) -- for the championship. On paper, it sounds like the usual "brash Yankee upstart shows the stiff-upper-lip Brits a thing or two," an arrogant notion at this point in time, given how much our international reputation has been stained by the current administration. Instead, the film harbors an unexpected resonance aimed at the downtrodden: Francis and his two British opponents all spring from humble origins, fighting prejudice every step of the way as their grit and determination allow them to beat the ruling class at its own game. It's an American story in the truest sense: Championing the underdog, it depicts the struggle between the haves and the have-nots -- and for once, it's the haves who are left wanting. What could be more inspiring than that? HHH

INTO THE BLUE With its gorgeous shots of inviting surf and sand, Into the Blue is the very definition of a mindless summer movie. So what do MGM and Columbia Pictures elect to do with it? Hold it until the fall. Then again, that dense thinking goes hand in hand with the doltish shenanigans occurring on screen during the course of this silly yet harmless piffle. Paul Walker, whose primary contribution to the art of film acting is that he can furrow his brow with the best of them, stars as Jared Cole, an amicable beach bum hoping to find sunken treasure in the Bahamas. Jessica Alba, who wears the same vapid look she displayed earlier this year in Sin City and Fantastic Four, plays Samantha, who's apparently content simply being Jared's sweetheart. Along with Jared's insufferable best friend Bryce (Scott Caan) and his opportunistic girlfriend du jour Amanda (Ashley Scott), they not only discover a sunken pirate ship but also a downed airplane containing millions of dollars worth of cocaine. Yet while Jared and Samantha are only concerned with the shipwreck, Bryce and Amanda are more interested in profiting from the coke, a decision that places everyone in danger once the local drug dealers get wind of their discovery. This is the sort of low-IQ fare in which Alba's derriere receives more close-ups than her face, yet writer Matt Johnson does make an admirable stab at providing some dramatic heft to his script until the inanities finally get the best of him. I especially liked how Jared could hold his breath underwater for what appeared to be five-minute stretches -- who was his dad, Aquaman? H 1/2

OLIVER TWIST Roman Polanski finally won his Oscar a few years ago for The Pianist, although it was one of his least interesting directorial excursions: Because that particular Holocaust story was both so personal in nature and so global in its tragic implications, a mindful Polanski stayed away from the cinematic flourishes seen in masterworks like Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby. So what's his excuse with Oliver Twist? This "re-imagining" (as the press material calls it) of the Charles Dickens classic tinkers with the original tale, but deviation from the source material isn't its primary problem. It's that while this timeless tale has been uncorked once again, it isn't allowed to properly breathe, stewing instead in its own stodginess. It's a respectable production, to be sure, but compare it to David Lean's definitive version from 1948 and you'll notice the lack of fire and ire that seemed to charge every frame of that earlier take. Polanski and Pianist scripter Ronald Harwood regrettably downplay the juicy melodrama, though a couple of performances break through the stifling air: Leanne Rowe makes a favorable impression as the ill-fated Nancy, while Ben Kingsley, although never matching Alec Guinness' peerless portrayal in the Lean version, turns the sniveling thief Fagin into a figure more likely to be pitied than loathed. As for the child actor essaying the title role, Barney Clark is rather non-descript. HH 1/2

SERENITY Fans of the short-lived TV series Firefly will doubtless want to add another couple of stars to the rating for this big-screen spin-off: The show's devotees who attended the advance screening were cheering as lustily as Romans watching Christians being fed to the lions. But for those who haven't already built up a rapport with these characters and their struggles, Serenity is a long slog through sci-fi tedium, mixing elements from the countless space operas that preceded it without bringing anything new to the party. Written and directed by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), this is set 500 years in the future, with the universe under the thumb of the evil Alliance (not to be confused with the Empire). Its only opposition comes from the crew members of the spaceship Serenity, captained by a cocky scoundrel named Mal (not to be confused with Han Solo). After Mal (Nathan Fillion) and his team agree to protect young River (Summer Glau), a girl with telepathic abilities and an occasional appetite for destruction, the Alliance dispatches its ace operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor, taking top acting honors) to settle the matter. Offering next to nothing in the way of character development or even simple introductions -- and scrambling fortune-cookie philosophies in the hopes of coming up with something profound -- this is a cinematic flatline, only perking up for a bravura finale. At one point, it's revealed that when River goes on a rampage, a certain sentence will cause her to drop right to sleep -- here's betting it's "Wanna go see Serenity?" H 1/2

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